Friday, 9 October 2015
Prologue - Solecism
Motionless, she sat staring at the blackened oozing flesh on her arm. Bruises covered her stomach and chest, cuts and grazes covered her knees, but not a tear fell from her eyes. She watched as the skin around the wound on her wrist reddened and swelled. As the wound festered, she thought back over the past few years; she needed to know where she went wrong if she was to survive.
Willow Monteguard was raised like any other girl from a noble house in Matharyn. The capital of Talingarde and it's famous Golden Bow, the single richest district in the city, an arc of luxurious manors covering the western edge of the broadest and deepest part of the River Danyth. Equally one of the higher ranking noble houses, the Monteguard's had their city manor in prime location, a large mansion almost three hundred feet wide on the highest point of the riverside. They were part of the infamous Forty Four, the Noble’s Elite of Matharyn. And to be part of the Forty Four was to be on the cusp of the Talirean social scene.
The Monteguard line had been part of Matharyn since the origin of the Markadian reign. Generations had passed through the decades, becoming a staple in Talingarde's history. The current head of the house and Duke of Keldenryn, Bartley Cassidus Rebold Monteguard, was renowned for his abilities as a diplomat. His clever tongue and quick thinking had saved the region uncountable gold over the years. It was a trait that had evidently been passed on to his only daughter. Words flowed from her lips with ease and grace. Her eyes could read the lies others were telling without breaking face, controlled and calm she stayed, never giving away a thing.
Willow learnt to curtsey on arrival, sway and glide as she walked, cover her mouth when she laughed. She read books about kings, studied lore about empires, wrote songs about history. As she matured, she learnt to soften her gaze and flutter her eyes when a potential suitor was looking. She learnt to act like a proper lady, always leaving her admirers wanting more, but never leaving so much to the imagination that she wandered from their mind.
It was rumoured that Willow’s fair completion, slender graceful figure and pale red eyes were the result of distant generations of Elven blood mixed in the Monteguard line. Though such rumours were falsities, harshly dealt with and never spoken in polite society. Still, her beauty was renowned among the people of Matharyn, common and noble folk alike. Her long luscious black locks flowing down her back were the envy of every woman, and her crimson kissed full lips were the desire of every man.
The townspeople spoke of her gracefulness, her kind aura and her angelic nature. The offers of suitors were in over-abundance; every noble ranking family in the Matharyn region would have been grateful to accept Willow into their family. At the ripe age of sixteen, it was the offer of the great House Talrish that was finally accepted by Willow’s father. The eldest son, Audric Edmond Talrish, was a fine suitor indeed. He served the Knights of the Alerion, the elite warriors of Talingarde, devout followers of the Shining Lord Mitra. A fine match they made, a stern faced noble knight and his sweet talking ever-graceful bride.
Or so she would have you believe…
As a child Willow studied history and religion. She was particularly taken with a certain prince of history. An entity of pride, contractual obligations and tyranny. Asmodeus – The Prince of Darkness. It was him that the Monteguard’s honoured and followed. They strived for his order, his freedom from chaos. But of course it was only behind closed doors. For the worship of such a god was heresy – and the Monteguard’s were no use to Asmodeus dead.
Willow was taught power in hierarchy and order. She studied the way of Asmodeus rule. Every creature knowing its place, the weak always being ruled by the strong, the smart always outwitting the daft. What others called evil, was what she saw the natural order of the universe; water flows downhill, fire burns and the strong dominate the weak.
The Monteguard's had worshipped their Infernal Lord since before the Taldorian vassal state of Talingarde was born. Their ancestors came across the great sea, playing their part in the gruelling war of conquest. In the time of Markadian I, all religions were worshipped and the Monteguard bloodline ran strong in their home country of Cheliax, where the Prince of Darkness ruled unrivalled.
When Markadian IV came into power, The Zealot launched a war against the Asmodean faith. By fire and inquest, he sought to destroy every trace of Asmodeus from the land. Cassidus Edward Monteguard, Willow's Great Grandfather, had long held the title of Lieutenant General. He had played an instrumental part in the great conquest, earning him and his family special recompense. Cassidus and his family publicly renounced Asmodeus. They repented, begging forgiveness, embracing Mitra as their lord. Of course, they did not actually abandon the Prince of Darkness. They worshipped him behind closed doors, plotting and planning for his return.
Every bit a child, Willow fostered a special connection with Asmodeus. Her parents would find her talking to him late at night as if he were in the room with her. She would tell them of him, his constant watchful eye, helping hand or warm embrace. At his command, she spent her younger years delighting in tricking people, convincingly lying and learning to manipulate them to her will.
As an adult, she fulfilled her duties as a wife and put on the face to make her husband believe he was all she needed. But he would never be enough. No man could ever be enough. No man could rule her while she was their better, she knew her place, and it was certainly above them. She could never love someone she could manipulate to her every whim. If they were not smart enough to see through the manipulation, then they deserved to be used like tools to suit her needs.
It was her strong connection to the Prince of Darkness that had her question her mother and father's devotion. As an early teen she would accuse them of their lack of faith, their laziness having taken over leaving them idle, fat and happy. She regarded them as undeserving of their power and status. As she grew, she learnt that some thoughts were better kept to herself. For she knew Asmodeus to be the Lord of Ambition, and she was most certainly ambitious. She was strong where her parents were weak, and their Lord had his own way of working these things out.
“A way with words,” people would say of her gift – her ability to talk anyone into or out of anything. As young as fourteen, she had already begun work for her father as a lower transcriber in the Mayor’s office. It took only a few short years to talk her way up the ranks into the role of first administrator to the Mayor of Matharyn. It was from here, that Willow could weave her web of deception in the name of Asmodeus.
As first administer she had access to most records and was responsible for sorting the priority list for the mayor’s charges each day. The mayor was an easy man to manipulate. All that Willow had to do was bat her pretty eyes while handing the him the contracts he was signing and his hand followed her lead while trying to slide around her waistline. While she was in the room, he had no time to pay attention to anything else. Fraud and extortion were simple play things to Willow; she would smile gracefully as people unknowingly signed away their money. Most of them would never realise how mislead they had been.
But she had her sights set on something much bigger; The crown.
King Markadian V of the House Darius was known for his charity. It was his “help the less fortunate” attitude that sparked the fire in Willow. It was his “help the less fortunate that refuse to do anything to help themselves”. The natural order of the world was that the strong rule the weak. They were weak for a reason. Willow craved real leadership. She craved the rule of a man who saw the world and its people for what they were – most of them inferior helpless sheep. She craved Asmodeus.
It was this flame that put her into action. She knew that getting to the King himself would be perhaps beyond her reach for the moment, but a target she could surely reach was his beloved daughter Belinda. A benevolent kind girl, the apple of her father’s eye. No better way of disrupting the royal line than wiping out the only heir to the throne. She would work her way up to the king next. One by one she would wipe out every existing Markadian. Her own family were only a few steps from royalty. Nothing like a string of untraceable deaths to boost them up.
A decent assassin was always someone Willow had respect for, a man who could separate himself from his emotion and get his job done. Willow had need of such a man, and she had just the one in mind. A man who had never failed a task set before him, with a stoic face to rival her own. He asked no questions. He sought the target and location, he accepted her money, and the job was done on time as agreed. He called himself Switch, and after five years of working together, he’d never divulged his real name. But he’d earned himself a special place in Willow’s mind. A man in constant observation, a man who chose each word wisely, a man who never revealed his cards. It was not very often Willow lost control of her emotions, but a man so hard to break, no batting eyes would sway - he was a man worth her time.
It was only one night that brought about her downfall, she could see that now. Willow usually sent payment along with a hireling, dirty work and road running were certainly not to her status. Only, that night she decided to go herself. Her curiosity was piqued, she had to know if the man of mystery and stone cold looks had a weak point, and she had been unable to discern one yet.
They met in an abandoned temple on the outskirts of town, a forgotten relic of the past and a place she had always felt safe. She wore a cape of black to cover herself and her ruby carved daggers that were strapped to her hips. She stalked into the temple only after she was certain she was not followed. Dropping her hood, she heard the faintest of breaths behind her and swiftly unsheathed her daggers as she span around. In a single moment, she came face to face with the ruggedly handsome masked assassin, his dagger resting at her throat. She smirked as he ran his eyes over her, not making any effort to disguise that he liked what he saw. As he met her eyes, he lowered his blade, gently tracing it down her chest before sheathing it. Willow fingered her dagger for a few moments more, before unfastening her cloak and taking up a perch on the nearby wall. As they stared in silence for a while, Willow considered the man. Tall, strong and built, but still lean and nimble. She noticed the scuffed boots with worn away soles, the tight fitting pants and shirt, even the soft material it was all made from. They would never hear him coming. He chuckled as she tried to study his face, the mask he wore covered any recognisable features, but his familiar laugh sent shivers down her spine. Attempting to hide her reaction, she began talking and turned on her usual charm. She found it oddly curious how easily the conversation flowed with him. They spoke of everything from fine arts to tight corsets; he held a twisted sense of humour that Willow certainly enjoyed.
After an hour talking with the curiously evasive man, she said her farewell, tossing him the pouch of gold as she turned to leave. Before she had taken a step, his hands gripped her forearms, spinning her towards him. He thrust her backwards and pinned her against the wall. He crushed his lips to hers, crushing her further against the stone as he pushed his thigh between her legs. Willow was outraged at his audacity, but she couldn't restrain herself. So long, she had thought of this. So long she had denied him, denied herself. He had warned her that this day would come, and he had told her that when it did, she would be unable to ignore her desires any longer. She cursed her treacherous body as she ground herself down on his leg. She knew she should push him away, yet she was compelled to draw him closer. Every time they had met, she had managed to stay herself. This night was different. He seized her hands and forced them violently above her head, lifting her away from his leg and denying her all bar what he was willing to give. It was a move that fanned the fire within her; she had to gain control of him, she drew his lip into her mouth and bit down firmly. In a trice, he had her flipped around, face pressing into the sharp stonework of the wall. With a hand in her hair, he drew her head back, staring deep into her eyes. He stared into her soul as he took complete control of her – and all she could do was listen to her body and obey.
It was a night of weakness, she had let herself become vulnerable, she had been made to feel a passion she had never felt for anyone but Asmodeus. It was a frightening thought.
They never spoke of that night. After all, Willow was a married woman. The wife, the trophy, the pedestalled doll of a great noble Knight of Mitra. She could not be seen or connected with the scum of the streets; a man who killed for money. Switch accepted the contract on the Princess’ life. No queries, no objections, just a price and a wink as he left her dishevelled and exhausted on the temple’s stone floor.
Willow had to admire the way he worked once under contract. He was smart, no bravado - quick and efficient, always believing in ending someone else’s life only through necessity, and through the fastest and most effective means. Willow had seen too many cases put through the Mayor’s desk, incompetent amateurs wasting time with painful prolonged revengeful deaths. Leaving enough time for the victim to escape, be found or saved, leaving only the imbecile who allowed his feelings to disrupt his task. Each time he had completed a contract for her, Switch kept his mind on the job and got it done. Over the years he had completed a few for her. No one as high ranking as the Princess of course, but a merchant chewing into her profits, or a politician looking to jeopardise her convenient position. He was always efficient and successful. She had no doubt he would be again, for the exorbitant measure of gold she was paying, there was indeed no doubt.
As the daughter of a Duke, Willow was always invited to soirées the Princess hosted, and like every other year she would be bidden to the Royal Gala on the Vernal Equinox. If planned meticulously, she believed it would be the perfect chance to lace the Princess’ wine glass with a little amber lotus lowder. A swift death, leaving no trace of lingering poison.
Willow was incredibly gifted at bribes and blackmail and took particular pride in the way she could bend people’s will to suit her needs. A few well-placed coins to the palace kitchen staff; one would leave the potato sack in the way of the storeroom door while the stew was on, another would leave the window ajar so the Princess’ favourite pie could cool on the sill, one would spill a bucket of water across the brick walk to the kitchen stores just as the rear western guards were changing watch.
It was the night before the soirée when the guards kicked Willow’s door in. They came bursting through, led by her husband and another of the knights. Before she could speak, she was thrown to the floor, restrained and gagged.
“High Treason!” they kept barking.
Willow kept her calm as she was dragged out in chains, staring into the eyes of hatred, her husband with his stone cold face tinted with betrayal. When they brought her before the magistrate, she stood silently listening to the testimony of the manor staff, what they had been paid for small mundane tasks all amounting to a clear path for the would-be assassin. The same assassin who had turned her in, who had anonymously been blackmailing her husband with the evidence of Willow’s guilt. The same husband who could no longer protect a woman, an apparent faithful, loving wife, who would sleep with another man. She knew not what betrayal had iced over his heart. For when he looked to her, she did not see outrage or anger at her high treason. She saw a broken heart, a lover scorned.
It was a fairly short hearing; for there was no doubt that Willow was guilty. She did not protest; she did not try to claim her innocence. In fact, she said nothing. There was nothing she could say. She had lost all she had worked for, and she knew why. This was the natural order of the universe. The strong rule the weak and those too weak will be taken advantage of by those strong enough to do it. She had been weak, but she had learnt a harsh valuable lesson. She would not be weak again. She would not be inferior.
She was hauled into Branderscar Prison and thrown onto the cold stone floor. They pinned her down and pushed a searing hot brand into her arm. She felt the skin split, melt and burn away, but she did not move or whimper. She would not grant them the satisfaction. Picked up by a firm rough grip around the newly scorched open flesh, two guards dragged her to her cell.
Willow gazed into her blackened oozing arm. As the wound festered, she knew it would serve as a lifetime reminder. She would grow from this – Asmodeus demanded it.
She closed her eyes and spoke to him; she would not beg forgiveness, for all he demanded was obedience, all he demanded was that she keep her place. And her place was with him, fighting for him. She was strong, she was meant to restore order to this world. She would not be the victim again.